June 5th, 2013
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant may not have been very famous as a Yankee or even a big leaguer, but he was a legend of the game none-the-less. His name was James Harrison Hannah and he shared the Yankees catching duties with at first, Roxy Walters and then Muddy Ruel. “James Harrison” was what was on his birth certificate, but like both Walters and Ruel, he too had a nickname, one of the most fitting aka’s ever for a baseball catcher. Being six feet one inch tall and weighing 190 pounds, Hannah was close to half a foot taller and forty-to-fifty pounds heavier than the dimensions of an average American male back during WWI. So folks called him “Truck.”
As the war raged in Europe, the Yankees were well on there way to laying the foundation of what would become the game’s greatest dynasty. The cornerstone was an owner with lots of money who truly understood how spending big chunks of that cash to build a winning baseball team could be a wise investment. That owner, a beer brewer named Jake Ruppert showed up in 1915. The next piece of the foundation was a team manager who was not just a good judge of talent and effective field technician, but one who was tough enough to handle the rowdy, hard-living young men who played the game back then. For the Yankees, that was Miller Huggins, who took over as New York skipper the same year that Truck Hannah joined the team, in 1918.
One of just 15 big league players (and three Yankees) to be born in the state of North Dakota, Truck Hannah had started playing professional baseball as a 20-year-old back in 1909, with the Tacoma Tigers in the Northwestern League. He pretty much lived out of his suitcase the next half-dozen years, moving from one town and minor league team to another until he found a more permanent home in Salt Lake City, catching for the Bee’s, that city’s Pacific Coast League franchise. He was that team’s starting catcher for the next three years, giving Major League scouts a wide enough window to notice both his decent bat and huge physical size. Sure enough, New York offered him a contract and on Opening Day 1918, Huggins put “Truck” behind home plate and the two participated in their very first games as Yankees.
Unfortunately for Hannah, he got to the Major Leagues just as the game was changing. The deadball era was coming to a close and every team wanted players who could hit as well as field. Hannah had averaged right around .275 during his three seasons at Salt Lake and if he had been able to do likewise with New York, we may have been able to include the name “Truck” as the first in the long line of great catchers who have worn the pinstripes. But Hannah hit just .235 during his three seasons as a Yankee and that simply wasn’t good enough.
The Yankees released Hannah after the 1920 season. That December, the Yankees made a deal that sent Muddy Ruel to Boston and brought Red Sox catcher, Wally Schang to New York. The switch-hitting Schang would hit .316 in his first year in pinstripes and start behind the plate for the Yankees’ first-ever World Championship team two years later.
Meanwhile Hannah returned to the Pacific Coast League, where he would continue to catch (and also manage) for the next 18 seasons, finally leaving the employ of the Los Angeles Angels in 1939 at the age of 49. Along the way, he appeared (as himself) in two of Hollywood’s earliest talking films and became famous for throwing handfuls of dirt into an opposing hitter’s shoes or at their hands as pitches approached the plate. He might not be in Cooperstown but Hannah did become a PCL Hall of Famer. And even after he left the Angels, the old Truck wasn’t quite ready for the junk heap. He accepted a job to manage the Memphis Chicasaws and during the team’s 1942 season, both Memphis catchers were hurt and unable to play on the day of a doubleheader. Hannah suited up and at the age of 52 caught both ends of the twin bill.
By the way, the other two Yankees to have been born in North Dakota were former outfielder Ken Hunt and the current Yankee DH, Travis Hafner. Hannah shares his birthday with this record-setting pitcher and another former Yankee catcher.